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Kyriakos Mitsotakis: a new leader with an old name

Why did New Democracy members choose the socially liberal son of a former prime minister as the leader of their party, and of the political opposition to Syriza?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the new leader of New Democracy. Demotix/Orhan Tsolak. All rights reserved.On 10 January 2016, Kyriakos Mitsotakis won the intra-party elections and became the new leader of New Democracy. The new party leader secured a narrow but clear majority over his rival, Evangelos Meimarakis, in the second round of the race (i.e. 51% of the vote).

Although not precisely a dark horse, not many among the New Democracy's electorate anticipated that Kyriakos Mitsotakis would ascend to the leadership of the party. The main reservations revolved around the candidate's outright endorsement of a non-populist and 'neoliberal' profile; his family lineage from the Mitsotakis 'party-clan'; and his popularity among key European actors who are not particularly amicable in Greece (e.g. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel).

The main questions here are: what were the decisive catalysts that made Mitsotakis' victory possible against all odds? What can one expect within the immediate future?

New Democracy oscillating between ideological principles and 'party-clan' cleavages

Throughout the 1980s, New Democracy's policymakers sought to redefine the political identity of the Greek centre-right on a purely republican basis. Towards this objective, they combined a multitude of conservative and liberal standpoints. Since then, New Democracy has been marred by the internal competition between the Mitsotakis and Karamanlis 'party-clans'.

This intra-party antagonism roughly corresponded to ideological connotations in that the former clan has been opting for a more liberal/centrist whereas the latter for a more conservative orientation. Kyriakos Mitsotakis' father, Konstantinos, enjoyed a brief tenure in office (1990-1993) but fell from power, largely as result of internal dissent over the hot-button Macedonian issue (i.e. the departure of Antonis Samaras and his faction of party-cadres).

Andreas Papandreou's victory in the 1993 elections, provided the ageing PASOK-leader with a fine opportunity to bring populism back to the fore. This encouraged, if only subtly, the powerful emergence of New Democracy's popular right faction under the leadership of Miltiades Evert in the mid-1990s.

In short, the popular right segment called for a greater stress on state-interventionism in the economy as well as the more emphatic endorsement of the nation's fundamental pillars of identity (e.g. the partnership between the Greek Orthodox Church and the state).

Miltiades Evert's successor, Kostas Karamanlis, maintained the popular right approach, largely as a political alternative to the 'Third Way' narratives espoused by the PASOK-leader, Kostas Simitis, back then. In the long run, this resulted in Kostas Karamanlis securing a term in office as PM between 2004 and 2009.

Antonis Samaras prolonged the dominant tradition of the popular right within the party-ranks until his subsequent U-turn and endorsement of the austerity measures. This, in turn, brought about his rapid decline of popularity until SYRIZA's victory in the January 2015 elections.

Within the context of this brief overview, Kyriakos Mitsotakis had to compete with three candidates who represented three different shades of New Democracy's popular right in the latest intra-party elections: the interim leader Evangelos Meimarakis; the former Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis; and the governor of the Central Macedonia municipality, Apostolos Tzitzikostas.

During the electoral race, even Mitsotakis' supporters tended to cast certain doubts over their favourite candidate's prospects for victory. In the light of the, highly unpopular, austerity policies, the media and various political actors had managed to portray Mitsotakis as a fervent 'neoliberal' and unconditional proponent of the privatization terms included in the 'Third Memorandum'.

Furthermore, this candidate's endorsement by political figures not particularly amicable among the Greek public (e.g. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel) was not interpreted as a sign that could enhance Mitsotakis' chances for becoming the new party-leader.

Last but not least, the family lineage from the, lately not so popular, Mitsotakis clan came to epitomize the odds against Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Evangelos Meimarakis' lead in the first round of the race briefly confirmed these suspicions among Mitsotakis' rivals as well as supporters. Therefore, what brought about this apparent reversal in the second round?

The pendulum shifts in favour of Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Of instrumental importance was the, not so subtle, sponsorship of Evangelos Meimarakis by certain media outlets and politically-active individuals with an affiliation to Syriza. In a recent editorial article, the party-publication Avgi clearly expressed its preference for the more 'humane' Meimarakis over the 'neoliberal' Mitsotakis.

This preference was further justified through references to the, allegedly dubious, past of the Mitsotakis clan in Greek politics. Moreover, various individuals with a pro-Syriza profile (e.g. the comedian Lakis Lazopoulos) struck a comparably favourable stance towards Meimarakis.

Syriza's more positive disposition towards Evangelos Meimarakis can be comprehended on the basis of the latter's seemingly closer attachments to the popular right segment of New Democracy. After all, the current leader of the Independent Greeks/ANEL and Syriza's partner in the coalition government, Panos Kammenos, also commenced his political career from the same faction.

To the eyes of an external observer, Syriza's policymakers and affiliates assessed more positive prospects for a modus vivendi, in the likelihood of Meimarakis' assumption of the party leadership. Nevertheless it appears that this, not so subtle, display of preferences gradually 'backfired' in that it generated doubts over Meimarakis' prospects as a powerful opposition leader among New Democracy's electorate. Consequently, a larger percentage within the party's bases of support started considering that a less populist option might bring about a more effective anti-model to the Syriza-ANEL condominium.

In addition to this, New Democracy has been struggling with the problem of its currently low popularity among the younger age-groups. In the January as well as the September 2015 elections, the latter clearly opted for Syriza and To Potami.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other representatives of the more centrist/liberal segment of the party granted their assent to the most recent law on LGBT rights as well as the adoption of a more ius solis approach to citizenship laws in Greece. The new party-leader has also espoused a number of additional 'youth-friendly' prerogatives such as the facilitation of start-up opportunities for young entrepreneurs.

In combination with what was earlier mentioned over the adoption of a non-populist anti-model, it might not be an exaggeration to speculate that several New Democracy voters saw in Kyriakos Mitsotakis the leader who can gradually attract the younger and more liberal segments of the society towards the party. This could form part of a rather efficient strategy, especially in the light of the frequent opposition to Syriza by the, socially conservative, ANEL on numerous issues within the ruling coalition. 

What to expect in the immediate future?

At this given moment, it might be very premature to make any sound and long-term predictions. Nevertheless, a few preliminary assessments over the political strategy that Kyriakos Mitsotakis is likely to pursue at this stage can still be made. For a start, one can expect that Kyriakos Mitsotakis will not condescend to the politics of confrontation but he will still pursue a vocal opposition strategy vis-à-vis the government.

Furthermore, any speculations for a grand coalition government, including the participation of New Democracy, should be currently ruled out. One of the main priorities for the new leader will be to actively reverse the obstacle of New Democracy's low popularity among the younger age-groups.

Lastly, one can expect that Kyriakos Mitsotakis will wholeheartedly enjoy the support of key political actors among the centre-right in the core states of Western Europe.    

About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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